Hoogah-Boogah

James Wolcott

  • The Black Veil by Rick Moody
    Faber, 323 pp, £16.99, August 2002, ISBN 0 571 20056 7

‘Sad things can happen when a writer chooses the wrong subject,’ Wilfrid Sheed once observed. ‘First the writer suffers, then the reader, and finally the publisher, all together in a tiny whirlpool of pain.’ Rick Moody’s The Black Veil is the latest voyage to the bottom of the sink, a journey of self-discovery jinxed by dense fog and treacherous syntax. Moody is best known for his novels, Garden State (which is being released for the first time in the UK to piggyback on the publication of this book),* Purple America and The Ice Storm, and his short-story collections, The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven and Demonology. He also co-edited Joyful Noise, a collection of essays devoted to the New Testament. In The Black Veil Moody assumes the role of apostle. This book is a secular gospel, a modern replica of a 19th-century bedside miscellany: a hodgepodge of personal anecdote, family lore, literary reflections, political comment, religious brooding, weather updates (‘this day is sunny and bright with cumulus clouds, a little bit of humidity, high in the mid-eighties, storm front from the Midwest approaching’), and lobster recipes from Moody’s crusty granddad. The book jacket of the US edition is a faux antique with quaint typeface and torn binding meant to give the illusion of a well-worn volume fetched from a private collection.

The book’s ironic pseudo-retro design is reminiscent of McSweeney’s, the literary magazine and website edited by Dave Eggers, which makes the droll pretence of providing barber-shop reading for educated gentlemen. There are other similarities. Like Eggers (whose memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was puffed by Moody), David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann, Moody spurns the eye-dropper technique of minimalism that was fashionable when he was a nervous colt in the 1980s in favour of a bachelor-guy pack-rat approach where everything the author has ever seen, read, felt or heard on headphones is catalogued and databased (Nick Hornby with a dash of Derrida). Where graduates of the Gordon Lish ‘mini-me’ academy were often tagged as emotional anorexics and numbed-out narcissists – their sliced-thin sentences leaving a trail of stitches – maximalists like Moody follow the lead of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo by wiring themselves into consumer culture, conspiracy theory, pop iconography and spy-craft technology, trying to chart an underlying pattern in the chaos, a treasure map of paranoia. Purple America, Moody’s major-statement novel about the nuclear family in the age of nuclear jitters, took this approach about as far as it could go.

As its cover suggests, The Black Veil finds Moody reaching past his immediate literary fathers to his anguished forefathers, Hawthorne, Melville and Poe – the first example of American genius as damaged goods. Like them, he’s delving into the dark, inhaling graveyard vapours, illustrating with a thick brush. And, like them, he often feels himself an alien in his own land, a crushed romantic. All his life the talented Moody has been moping and he wants to know, needs to know, why. Why does he have the low-down white-boy blues? The Black Veil is a study of depression as self-destructive ordeal, ancestral legacy and literary quest. Like a madly quaint Victorian production, ivy seems to sprout from the chock-a-block prose that threatens to turn each paragraph into university brick face. Here is the first paragraph of The Black Veil:

So there’s the matter of our crimes. The remembrance of our misdoings is grievous to us; the burden of them is intolerable. Lies, whispered, of friends’ indiscretions; instances of envy – when we hate the people we love; peccadillos; filched office supplies; inflated expense accounts; violent obsessions of all kinds; reckless speeding; a fender bender whose scene we left; the belt from Macy’s we slipped into our own belt loops (they’re the easiest thing to take); a copy of Montaigne, 19th-century edition, never returned to the library; a kiss stolen from someone else’s lover; a night out of state upon a tanned mattress when the energy of adultery seemed so persuasive that we concealed from ourselves all memory of our spouses; gifts never sent; allegiances never acknowledged; inexplicable cruelties to people with bad luck; inexplicable cruelties to friends; the waiter we upbraided that time…

Yes, many are the ways of being a cheeseball (the sentence lists several more, including cheating at board-games), and yet one paragraph into the book and Moody is already playing fast and loose with the fingerpointing. It’s the sort of show-offy, loose-logic passage Harold Ross would have shot down by flagging with question marks signifying ‘Huh?’ Why, for example, is there no sheet on that adulterous bed? Isn’t it precisely the memory of one’s spouse that gives adultery its dirty kick? (In a poem called ‘Adultery’, James Dickey, who knew whereof he spoke, concluded: ‘Guilt is magical.’) Why are ‘peccadillos’ deemed part of the devil’s handiwork? (Most peccadillos are as harmless as hobbies.) Is a belt easier to swipe than, say, a pair of cashmere socks or a bottle of perfume? Moody’s mixed salad of venial sins, minor character blemishes, petty acts of selfishness (‘gifts never sent’), poor sportsmanship (‘we cheated at backgammon’ – that’s it, buddy, you’re banned from the hospitality room), and genuine violations lacks the core conviction and rolling thunder of revival-meeting oratory to carry us over its arch locutions and logical inconsistencies. It’s as if Moody is trying to channel a voice from the ether that isn’t natural to him. Much of the book sounds like a bogus impersonation, a belletrist’s version of Boris Karloff.

‘Down underneath New York City, in a network of tunnels and caverns, rat-populated, perspiring, rumbling, lonely, I was troubled, as I have often been troubled, by these alarums of conscience.’ At a quick glance, a reader might be forgiven for thinking that Moody is crawling with rats. (And where’s the ‘rumbling’ coming from: the subway, the author’s stomach?) Entranced by the anachronistic manner he has adopted, Moody never makes a plain statement when he can metaphysically milk it. It isn’t enough for him to say that it was awkward meeting his father’s new girlfriend after his parents separated. No: ‘The first girlfriend he presented to us was like an insoluble problem – like the existence of God, the location of the soul – upon which you founder in your undergraduate course-work.’ A kiss isn’t just a kiss, it’s an opportunity to be botanical: ‘I liked when you knew that the kiss was imminent; kisses made me want to use names of parts of flowers: inflorescence, pappus, calyx, anther, pollinator, corolla.’ Like Wallace and Eggers, our busy pollinator deploys italics as an all-purpose anti-boredom device, sprinkling them across the page to give humdrum expressions an absurd emphasis, a synthetic pep. Christmas presents become ‘seasonal gifts’; alcohol is touted by a speaker as ‘a fine social lubricant’; a cookbook for diner food offers ‘four different meat loaf recipes’; he listens to the Ramones on his ‘portable cassette player’.

Typographical tricks suit satirists such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, who seem to be graffiti-spraying billboards with impudent brio, deploying jazzy effects (italics, caps, boldface, exclamation marks, dashes) to fill a wide canvas. They’re performance artists in print. Pynchon, too. Moody is more of a heartbreak kid, using italics as sarcastic captions for the pictures in his personal scrapbook. He warns us that these snapshots make for a disorienting collage, a Dostoevskian convulsion. ‘Readers in search of a tidy, well-organised life in these pages, a life of kisses bestowed or of novels written, may be surprised. My book and my life are written in fits, more like epilepsy than like a narrative.’ Bad analogy, and a tad tasteless. Epileptic seizures are uninvited. Moody’s fits were self-induced.

Early in The Black Veil, Moody mentions his father watching football games on television, grumbling at the performance of the New York Giants and Frank Gifford. Attentive readers will spot the echo of A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley’s classic account of his obsession with the Giants and Gifford, and his bleary tumble into alcoholism, cheap broads and a succession of lumpy sofas. Like Exley, patron saint of literary fuck-ups, Moody saturation-bombs his brain with booze: ‘I drank bourbon, I drank beer, I drank wine, I drank some more beer.’ He’s also a pill-popper. In boarding school he swallows six times the recommended dose of a hallucinogen and hears ‘certain perverted dwarfs’ reviling him from behind the walls. (Future critics, no doubt.) In college, pursuing the zombie lifestyle, he washes down a dozen Quaaludes with Jack Daniels. His youthful exploits make for a Bret Easton Ellis cocktail of privilege, debauchery and brand-names. ‘Barbara, the cocaine abuser, had encouraged me, after a night at Danceteria, to chop lines of that fell drug with her on her parents’ Roy Lichtenstein print.’ True co-dependency is achieved when he hooks up with Jen, a girlfriend who also gets regularly blitzed. When they host a dinner party together (bad idea), Jen’s too busy vomiting in the bathroom to greet the guests.

As in most recovery narratives, the road to sobriety leads crookedly but fatefully to rehab. When Moody begins fantasising that every man he meets wants to bugger him (‘I was convinced I was going to be raped, forcibly, sexually violated by some unnamed male, penetrated, bruised, inseminated . . . held down, left bleeding, violated, something trickling from me’), a phobia that escalates into fear of a wolf-pack attack on his honeydew melon (‘All the men in the Port Authority Bus Terminal were going to assault me’), it’s check-in time at the dry-out clinic. Although rehab scenes have become a ritual in crack-up literature from The Bell Jar to Girl, Interrupted, the very familiarity of the material gives the reader a welcome breather – a leafy break – from the bat-winged frenzy of urban gothic The Black Veil otherwise purveys. Group therapy temporarily bumps Moody’s self-absorbed psyche out of the spotlight and allows him to redirect his gaze outwards, gain a modest perspective (since most of the other patients are worse off than he is). A Fourth of July outing for the patients is a potential Diane Arbus moment shot in cheerful Kodak colour. ‘A Frisbee bonked one depressed guy on the head. He paid no attention.’

One of the inmates is a Dominican woman named Conchita, who’s married to an abusive creep. Post-rehab, Conchita shows up at Moody’s ‘converted gas station apartment’ with ‘the traditional black eye favoured by the wife-beater’ and a bashed lip. Why did she choose him in her moment of need? Because ‘I was no threat, I was white America in the gentlest, most unimposing form.’ Mr Soft-Boiled America lets her stay, but is half-hearted about it, unable to make eye contact as he anxiously fidgets around her. ‘I said she should go to a battered-woman’s shelter, because hanging around in the gas station apartment with an emasculated artist guy . . . this guy wasn’t a remedy. But you can’t tell anyone anything.’ No, but you can hint like hell, and Conchita, sensing that she’s unwelcome, leaves – not for the women’s shelter but to return home to her battering husband. Moody is left alone with his ‘guilty conscience’, which he grooms like a show-cat.

He prizes his guilt because it’s guilt with a pedigree. Philip Rahv famously divided American authors into redskins and palefaces. Redskins are bearded bards and pagan guzzlers of experience (Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, the Beats, and that honorary American, D.H. Lawrence); palefaces, the tightly-buttoned patrician ministers of culture, society and manners (William Dean Howells, Henry James, T. S. Eliot). Although Moody tries to ride the wild surf of incantation, he’s a paleface from a long line of palefaces. If he were any paler, he’d be phosphorescent. The Moodys are a distinguished New England clan; they can trace their bloodline back into the mists. The Roots-like search that makes up the book’s main narrative is the attempt to divine the truth about an ancestor and family legend named Joseph ‘Handkerchief’ Moody, whose enigmatic decision to cover his face with a cloth to atone for the accidental killing of a friend was said to have inspired Hawthorne’s fascinating story ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’, which is reprinted as an epilogue to this book. It’s also a psychological probe. Perhaps the lacerating lack of self-worth that made Rick Moody empty the liquor and medicine cabinets, clench his buttocks in the presence of fellow men, and fink out on Conchita is the product of a psychological stain inherited from Handkerchief Moody – a warped gene. He links Handkerchief’s tragic act to William Burroughs’s ‘William Tell’ slaying of his wife, Joan, and the Columbine High School massacre, suggesting that the entire country may have a hereditary defect or closet demon. To conduct his investigation, Moody will walk in Handkerchief Moody’s footsteps and cross ‘a bridge of ghosts’ into the New England of Puritan belief and Indian raids. He will quote extensively from Handkerchief’s diaries, visit graveyards, describe the rooms he lived in, put Hawthorne’s text under the microscope for dissection, and explore every crooked branch of the family tree. He will bore us, bore us, and bore us some more.

Permit a personal note. I pride myself on being a professional. I’ve reviewed epic borers by John Barth and Harold Brodkey that would have broken the spirit of Cochise. Here I nearly met my match. It took every ounce of fading willpower to get through word-choked pages in The Black Veil that seemed to stare back, defying anyone to finish them, sentences such as (to pick one out of the barrel): ‘No other source that I could locate confirms Chapin’s theory that Earl Rognvald of Molde, who apparently styled this famous coiffure about AD 900, had anything in common with the present Moodys, beyond certain phonemic resemblances, but that does not stop Chapin from reverie on the subject of Vikings, including quotation from the Poetic Edda, as well as the following . . .’ The Poetic Edda! Earl Rognvald of Molde!

I reached the snapping point after Moody announced he was going to make his own veil in order to understand the burden of ‘shame and disgrace’ Handkerchief Moody had endured. In Hawthorne’s story, the decision to put on the veil is an act of moral dignity: it has a stark symbolism that invites and eludes interpretation; the veil becomes a singular flag of death, penance and self-condemnation that implicates all those who see it. (One could imagine Martha Graham making a dance based on the Handkerchief/ Hawthorne saga.) To Moody, however, this act of penance becomes an arts-and-crafts project, a giggly stunt. ‘Would I, for example, wear the veil to lunch with the guys I usually met at noontime at the Star Burger Deli on 46th Street? . . . How would my dentist react? . . . And what about the gym? Would I wear shorts, T-shirt, running shoes and a veil?’ Before he gets to those crucial decisions, he first has to obtain the materials for his face-curtain. He pays a jaunty trip to Wal-Mart, ‘where America shops’, which provides him with the opportunity to study average lower-middle-class fellow citizens as if they were life-sized bad-taste exhibits – George Segal sculptures in awful living colour. ‘As I moved into the pricey centre of the fabric section, where an employee and her friend were discussing tragedies of their lives (the employee, a grey-haired African-American woman bedecked in the regulation apron, was apparently struggling with the terminal illness of her mother), I moved into the more sturdy blends and natural samples, where I hesitated briefly over a black rhinestoned fabric.’ The ironic ‘bedecked’, the flippant banalising of another person’s sorrow – it’s hateful. He thinks he’s cute when he makes his purchases and feels giddy as a schoolgirl at being a patriotic shopper. ‘I had exercised freedom of choice, my step was assured and my posture had improved, and I strode briskly now to the cash registers and the front of the store. I got my veil and fastening technology, and even a few personal items, for a mere $13.31!’

After a few setbacks, Moody models the finished version of his veil in a private showing for his girlfriend, Amy (whom he refers to as ‘my paramour’). Looking in the mirror, he has some sort of epiphany in italics – it’s hard to tell because immediately he leaps out of his own head into Handkerchief Moody’s for a conjectural flashback – but the instant karma is apparently enough to convince him he can slough off the rest of the experiment. As far as I understand the hyperactive text, Moody never does parade the veil in public on a daily basis (the next chapter jumps ahead six months), sparing himself being teased at the diner, shunned at the gym.

Just as well. It turns out that all this hoogah-boogah about the veil was based on a group fabrication. On further geneological digging, Moody discovers that, oops, his family isn’t directly related to Handkerchief Moody at all! ‘We were the no-account Moodys,’ he writes, the Moodys from the wrong side of the fence – ‘the failures.’ He explains: ‘We didn’t marry well, and we didn’t get invited to dine with the other Moodys on the holidays. Therefore, my line, for some hundred years or more, had been liars about our lineage.’ His lofty scavenger hunt having been deflated, Moody might have decided to drop this book and spare himself and us a lot of homework. But no writer likes to waste material, even wrong material. Damn it, all that research on Earl Rognvald of Molde must count for something! Determined to turn deficit into gain, defeat into pyrrhic victory, he girds himself for a big finale and belts out an Ethel Merman solo on the blackness of the veil (the flipside of Melville’s ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’ chapter in Moby-Dick?), an aria that lasts nearly four pages and descants on the ebony notes in history, art, nature and popular consciousness, from the homicide victim known as the ‘Black Dahlia’ whose body was found in Los Angeles in 1947 (the mystery of her death making her a pulp-fiction siren) to black holes, blackheads, blackbirds, black bears, the black flags of pirate ships, black-box flight recorders, the Black Panthers, the Black Mountain poets, the Black Hole of Calcutta, the black masses of satanists, black humour, black rain, black lung disease, the Hollywood blacklist, crescendoing to the thunderbolt insight that ‘the real American colour is black’ – a revelation that came to the author when he wore the veil and heard ‘a howling inside me about history and remorse and loneliness and madness’. This primal scream segues into the puzzling statement, ‘my roots are in cave painting,’ but is followed by a blunt, unambiguous, climactic kiss-off. Echoing and amplifying Susan Sontag’s infamous pronouncement in the Partisan Review, ‘the white race is the cancer of civilisation,’ Moody decrees: ‘To be an American, to be a citizen of the West, is to be a murderer. Don’t kid yourself. Cover your face.’

So the portentous list of crimes and shadow acts that Moody unscrolls in the book’s opening paragraph turns out to be a false trail. Cheating at Parcheesi isn’t the issue. A weird cross between a bleeding heart and a hanging judge, Rick Moody is playing a larger blame game, where individual deeds hardly signify because there’s so much collective guilt to go around. To be culpable of crimes against humanity in his court, having light skin and European ancestors are enough to warrant a veil, a ski-mask, a paper bag with eye-holes – anything to cover the mark of Cain. It’s collective guilt selectively applied, a concept of Original Sin limited to certain time-zones and complexions, and weirdly ahistorical. When Moody rails against the ‘brutality, bloodthirstiness and murder’ of the West, he neglects the blood on Japan’s and China’s bayonets, Africa’s genocidal wars, Islamic jihad, the killing fields of Cambodia. No continent has a monopoly on violence and conquest. Moody wears his liberal guilt not like a veil but like a message T-shirt, to show that he’s a sensitive white guy who’s sensitive about being a white guy in a world where bad stuff happens. But when he didn’t come through for Conchita (assuming she exists – at one point he announces, ‘any memoir is a fiction’), he didn’t fail as an American or a white marshmallow from the upper middle class: he failed as a human being in a one on one situation. When you look in the mirror, there’s only one face looking back, not all of humanity.

Why did Rick Moody persist in writing The Black Veil? I believe it was to paint himself as a passionate misfit, a permanent outsider and underdog. That would explain why he didn’t ditch the project after discovering that he wasn’t related to Handkerchief Moody: finding out that he belonged to the failures in the family tree certified his lifetime membership in the loser’s club, validated his chump status. He portrays himself as a sad sack, but an emblematic, representative one – an object lesson to others. That’s the ultimate perversity of the book, because by any measure he’s a publishing success – a ‘made man’ in the literary mafia, junior division. His novels are commercial and critical hits, he serves on the board of Yaddo, judges fiction competitions, has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and won coveted awards; he writes frequently for the top glossy and literary magazines in the US, his essays and stories are widely anthologised. He’s one of the top guns of his generation. Yet in The Black Veil he treats his achievements as niggling side activities. He recounts not getting a teaching job in the English department at Tuscaloosa and remarks: ‘The search was scrapped, and I sold my second novel.’ As if second novels grow on trees. He coyly shrugs off ‘all that business about a movie that was made of a certain novel by me’ – i.e. The Ice Storm. He’s the male counterpart to Elizabeth Wurtzel, the overachieving underachiever who wowed readers with her daredevil debauchery in Prozac Nation and then would throw in, almost as an afterthought, being accepted at Harvard or selling a piece to Rolling Stone. Despite Wurtzel’s image as an unguided nympho crash-landing in the emergency room, she’s published four books, countless magazine articles, and become a transatlantic celebrity; she’s produced quite a bit between all those blowjobs and blackouts. The spasmodic Moody has produced far more.

Unlike Wurtzel, Moody is an ambivalent exhibitionist, a passive-aggressive memoirist with high-art aspirations. He draws attention to himself only to draw away, wanting the work to speak for itself. (That’s what all writers say when they don’t feel like dressing up and going out.) After The Black Veil was published in America, Moody did a diary for the online journal Slate where he griped about having to ‘pimp’ his book and consort with hypocrites. ‘Cocktail parties are abominations as far as I’m concerned. The longer I stay at cocktail parties, the more I feel myself becoming the Designated Observer of other people’s craven behaviour.’ Fun guy. When the minister in Hawthorne’s story donned the veil, ‘its gloom . . . enabled him to sympathise with all dark affections.’ Hawthorne’s minister passed judgment on himself and learned fellow-feeling; Moody passes judgment on everybody else, his experience with the veil having taught him nothing. That he could put all of this thought and effort into a study of shame and humility and not lose an ounce of his own conceit – you have to admire the gall. That’s one of the things we do in America, admire gall. But the denunciatory reviews that The Black Veil received in the States indicates that even we can only take so much.